* Big thanks to Ves for her fast but thorough beta, and for her encouragement!  Tracy, I didn't bug you on this one due to lack of time, but I hope you'll enjoy it!

** I want to thank everyone who has been so encouraging and patient with me over the past few months.  I'm hoping now that this chapter is over, it will get a little easier from here on out...but I've thought that before!

*** I'll be away and computerless for the next 3 weeks, so please understand that it will take me awhile to respond to any of your questions,complaints, and/or feedback.  Thanks and happy holidays!
 

It's About Time ~ Chapter 12

~~~~~~~

A frustrated Willow stood in the middle of her bedroom, the floor around her littered with overflowing shopping bags.  The trip to the mall had been a complete success.  Or a total failure, depending on how she looked at it.  She'd spent money.  Lots of money.  Yet as she glanced about at the various department store bags, Willow had the strangest feeling that she still had nothing to wear.

As a teenager, Willow had never been all that fond of roaming the mall.  Fashion had never been her forte.  Even after befriending Buffy, a relationship which required a certain amount of mall-time on a regular basis, Willow had fallen short of developing any sort of true appreciation for the shopping act itself.

In a way, it had been easier back in the 18th and 19th centuries.  During those first years alone when she'd had nothing, especially money, Willow had little choice in attire nor the heart to care.  Later when she'd had money, either what Spike had given her or the gambling winnings she'd created from his generosity, Willow would simply visit a local modiste, or they would come to her, to have gowns tailored specifically for her.  Willow had usually allowed the dressmakers to tell her what was in vogue at the time, taking their direction on fabrics and colors that they thought would suit her best.  She would always tweak their ideas, making the gowns looser here or less cumbersome there, and always with a thought to the fact that she rarely had a personal maid to help her in and out of the tedious dresses and all of their various undergarments.  No, even in those days when she could afford to say 'to hell with fashion' while still managing to look the part of a stylish woman of means, shopping hadn't been fun.  Except, that is, on those few occasions that Spike had accompanied her.  Shopping with Spike, whether for clothes or the best bottle of Merlot in the country, had never been dull.

Unfortunately, Spike wasn't with her as she'd wandered the 20th century mall, venturing from shop to shop.  She had hoped that the strange novelty of it all would help dispel the melancholy fog that her latest fight with Angel had stirred within her. But all too soon, what little pleasure she found in the vast array of stores and choices turned into frustration as she realized that after all this time, she still had no idea what to buy.

As sure as Willow was that she no longer wanted to limit her wardrobe to overalls, baggy sweaters and cartoon-emblazoned t-shirts, she wasn't in a big hurry to be on the cover of Seventeen magazine either.  All the halter tops and cropped shirts seemed too tight and even too revealing by Rom standards, and the skirts felt indecently short.  When she focused on more tailored clothing, although they felt more comfortable than the trendier clothes, Willow quickly realized the last thing she wanted to look like was a young Republican, albeit a fashionable one.  Nope, tailored suits, pants, and jackets weren't quite 'her' either.  Finally she'd tried the other end of the fashion spectrum, garments that were the opposite of the finely tailored clothing, and while the loose flowing skirts and dresses were comfortable, they still seemed wrong, somehow.

In the end, no particular style seemed to suit her.  Not trendy club clothes, not expensive designer labels, and even the more earthy new-age wear with all of its Gypsy-like qualities seemed oddly out of place.  But she needed new clothes and at that point, anything that didn't scream 'Willow' or 'Rose' would do, so Willow had bought a little bit of everything and anything, even the styles that she'd already discounted.  And a lot of jeans.  She'd really missed jeans.

Unfortunately, the result of her indecision showed via the rather eclectic mix of clothing that lay strewn about her room.  Maybe she should have taken Buffy along after all.  Perhaps even Cordelia, but that would have ruined the surprise.  Besides, the trip to the mall, and to the expensive hair salon cocooned within its walls as well, was something she felt she needed to do on her own.

Too late now anyway, she sternly reminded herself as she began to make room in her closet and drawers for the new items.  She piled the old clothes that she was positive she'd never want to wear again in a corner to deal with later, deciding she'd either give them to charity or just have a big bonfire and toast marshmallows.  Then she began to sort through her new garments.

Willow did sigh with contentment, however, as she opened one particular bag and pulled out her most expensive purchase.  She wasn't sure exactly what she had been thinking when she had tried on the brown leather pants, but from the moment Willow had slid into the buttery soft hide, she'd been sold.  They weren't tight by any means, and the distressed leather felt as if it moved with her body instead of against it, making them almost as comfortable as her old baggy overalls.  Grimacing as she removed the price tag, Willow hung them in her closet in a position of honor.

As she continued to put her other purchases away, Willow tried unsuccessfully not to mentally calculate how much money she'd spent.  Not wanting to use her parents' credit cards even though she always had their permission, Willow had instead utilized a huge chunk of her personal savings account. It just didn't seem right to be once again completely dependent on Ira and Sheila Rosenberg, even though she had little choice.  In the eyes of the law, she was still a minor, subject to the whims of her parents.

Sighing as she pulled several small items out of a large Victoria's Secret bag, Willow had to squelch a sudden, biting stab of jealousy and resentment towards Spike.  Sure.  Now *he* was seemingly set financially, but she was back to depending on her generous allowance for spending money.  Not easy for a woman who was used to her gambling winnings providing her with more than enough money to buy almost anything that she'd desired.

"Shame I didn't make a few wise investments like Spike did," she grumbled, pulling the tags from some new bras and panties.  She hadn't been able to make up her mind regarding those either.  She wanted cotton for the comfort she'd longed for every day that she'd had to endure the binding undergarments of the mid-1800's, and yet she was attracted to the more sensual satin and lace lingerie with their beautiful jewel tones and provocative cuts as well.  Again, unable to decide, she'd purchased some of both.

With a sly smile, Willow hid the sexier garments in the back of her underwear drawer, under a few pairs of very old Scooby Doo 'Under-Roos' that she'd been meaning to throw away since she she'd hit puberty but had never had the heart to and still didn't.  She adored the cartoon 'Scooby Doo', and had always harbored a secret hope that Fred would quit fawning all over simple-minded, Danger-Prone Daphne and notice the brainy heart of the group, Velma.

Shaking her head at the odd turn of her thoughts, Willow shut the drawer and turned back to her unpacking.  "Yep," she said aloud a little later when she'd finished hanging up more than a dozen new tops.  "It would have been real nice if Spike had shared his plan for financial security with me."

At her departure from the past, Willow had given the bulk of her own money to her adopted Rom family.  At the time, she'd been too concerned about what to do with her guitar, her writings, and her more personal belongings to worry much about a little thing like money.

Annoyed with her own shortsightedness, Willow finished putting the last of her purchases away, smiling at some of the acquisitions, grimacing at others.  She was just sliding some new shoes--from low-heeled boots to dangerously high heels--on her shoe tree, when the phone rang.

It was The Slayer calling from Angel's place, and Willow was relieved when Buffy didn't demand a long, let alone reasonable, explanation for why she wasn't at that very moment also over at Slayer Central with everyone else.  Instead, while Willow threw herself onto her bed and made herself comfortable, Buffy seemed more inclined to complain about some of the boys in her summer school class who had wasted their study group time that day by arm wrestling.

"I don't even know why they are in the class!" Buffy huffed on her end of the phone line.  "But the worst thing is, I had to endure all the other girls in the class 'oohing' and 'aahing' over their strength.  Pu-lease," Buffy groaned.  "We both know I could beat any of them with one hand tied behind my back *and* with wet nails!"  Willow found herself grinning broadly, and there was silence on Buffy's end.  "Um, not that I want the girls 'oohing' and 'aahing' over my muscles," Buffy quickly added.  "But the point is..." Buffy trailed off, which made Willow smile.  She could almost picture the perplexed look on the Slayer's face.  "There was a point, wasn't there?" Buffy finally asked.

Feeling as if she were once again 17, Willow released a happy sigh that was darn near a giggle.  "I'm not sure, Buffy.  I was too busy mentally 'oohing' and 'aahing,'" she teased, thoroughly enjoying the basically pointless and totally girlish dialogue.  Willow was still smiling when suddenly the need to tell Buffy the truth about everything--the trip back in time, Angel, Spike, Angelus, everything--was overwhelming, but before Willow could figure out how to begin, Buffy shattered the moment.

"We're Bronzing it tonight, right?"

Willow's mouth slammed shut and her stomach twisted in knots at the casual question.  She sat up straight, her fingers fiddling with the phone cord.  Going to The Bronze with the gang would probably mean seeing Angel, and while the meeting was inevitable, she wasn't in any particular hurry for their next encounter.

Before Willow could come up with an excuse, Buffy added, "Oz's band is playing."

Damn.  "Oh, yeah, but um...shouldn't you be studying tonight?  You do have a final this week, don't you?"

"Already on it, *mom,*" Buffy happily informed her.  "I'm done training and now Angel's quizzing us all...even Giles is chipping in with the occasional question."  Buffy lowered her voice, reminding Willow that she'd called from Slayer Central.  "Angel is in a pretty intense mood, complete slave-driver mode, so I figure another hour or so of this and I'll have met my mind-usage quota for the night."  Buffy's voice went back to her normal cheerful volume.  "Xander's already insisting that his brain is at the maximum capacity allowed by law."  Willow laughed at the quirky comment that was so typical of the dark-haired boy.  "So, we believe we are entitled to a little fun," the Slayer continued and in the background Willow heard Xander adding his hoots of agreement.

Buffy's tone grew more serious.  "I know you're worried, Willow, about Spike.  Of course we're not going to let you out of our sight, and we'll keep an eye out for the peroxide pest, but you deserve some fun, too.  Besides, you said you really wanted to listen to Oz's band."

"Oh, I do!" Willow insisted, glancing longingly over at her guitar case in the corner.

"Great!  The plan is for us to get all cleaned up and you can meet us here around 6:30.  Then we'll do the pizza thing before heading over to The Bronze together."

Willow, while never quite mastering the basics of a good plan herself, still knew that Buffy's was a bad, bad plan.  She thought fast, quickly coming up with a way to avoid going to Angel's place.

"Sounds perfect," Willow said with fake enthusiasm.  "Oh, I forgot!" she then added, an appropriate amount of disappointment to her tone.  "My parents are going to call sometime between 7 and 7:30, so why don't you guys do the pizza thing, and then I'll just meet you at The Bronze 'round 8?"  Willow wasn't surprised that Buffy easily bought the lie.  After all, when Willow applied herself, she could be a very skilful liar,  Still, Willow was relieved when Buffy didn't immediately argue with her.  That is until The Slayer reminded her about Spike, insisting that there was no way that she could be alone after the sunset.

"So, I'll just come pick you up around 7:30ish then?" Buffy offered, but Willow was prepared with another lie.

"I have no idea how long my parents are going to take, Buffy, but since it doesn't get dark until nearly 9 in the summer, I'll just meet you at The Bronze, okay?  I promise I'll walk in the middle of sunny streets the whole time and avoid all shadowy alleyways.  I'll be fine."

After much discussion and a promise from Willow that she'd get hold of them at The Bronze if she needed an escort after all, or take a taxi, Buffy eventually relented.

When she finally hung up the phone, Willow's prior good mood from talking to her old friend had completely dissipated.  Now all she could think about was seeing both Oz and Angel, and neither prospect gave her a warm, fuzzy feeling.

For as long as Willow could remember, she'd been eagerly anticipating seeing Oz play again, hearing the familiar songs, but now... Now, the pain she was expecting to experience was tempering much of that enthusiasm.  Not wanting to dwell on those depressing possibilities at the moment, Willow's thoughts turned to Angel instead.

Unfortunately, those were no less depressing.  How was she going to convince the dark vampire to let go of their paradoxical past relationship?  While it hadn't taken her long to regret much of what she'd said to the vampire that morning, specifically her demand that he behave more like the old Angel, brooding and unhappy, the vast majority of her still wished he'd leave her alone.  Being near him was too confusing, painful even.  For *both* of them, she was beginning to realize, finally becoming agonizingly aware that she was hardly a good influence on the souled vampire.

Willow picked up the large stuffed panda bear that had fallen on the floor, next to her bed.  The cuddly creature's name was Mr. Woo, and she and Xander had won it at the county fair a few years back by throwing an awful lot of darts at an awful lot of balloons.  She gave the bear a stern look and wagged her finger at it.  "This is for your own good, Angel, as well as mine," she told the black and white bear, but without the conviction that she'd be striving for.  Holding Mr. Woo out in front of her with both hands as she sat on the bed, Willow tried again.  "Whenever we're alone together, I seem to bring out the Angelus in you.  I-I don't mean to, but I do.  God, that must be hard on you, considering everything you've gone through," she groaned.  "You must hate me for that...or at least you should..."

When she got no response from the Angel stand-in, she sighed, leaning forward to rest her head against its furry warmth.

She stared into its glassy black eyes, wishing she could figure out a way to get Angel to back off of her for a while...and preferably *on* to Buffy.  Willow sat back up, wearing a silly grin at her own thoughts. With their cruder double meaning, it sounded just like something Spike would say.

"Wonder what Spike will say when he sees my hair?" she mused aloud to the bear.  For that matter, what were they all going to say?  She could only hope that the new look might help Angel see who she was now.  Or perhaps more importantly, who she wasn't.

Setting Mr. Woo back by her pillows, Willow got up to look at herself in the full-length mirror.  She edged closer to the glass until she was nearly nose-to-nose with her reflection.  Turning her head this way and that, she studied her hair closely.

She wasn't sure exactly how much she'd had the hairstylist at the posh mall salon cut off, but it was a fair amount.  Her hair fell just below chin-length, with long layers that gave her normally straight hair a softer, fuller look in a Scully-esque style.  And the color?  While still red, it was brighter and bolder, edging more towards true red than her natural auburn.  All things considered, Willow was very pleased with her new look.  Not only did her head feel ten pounds lighter, but Willow thought she looked more mature and sure of herself, as well.  No matter how lost she actually felt.

Sighing at the irony of it all, Willow's scrutinized her hair again, this time mentally measuring the length.  Had it grown any since she'd had it cut a few hours earlier?  When Spike's spell had been in effect, anytime she'd cut her hair, it would promptly grow back.  She grimaced, remembering one dark night in which she'd hacked off more than a foot of her auburn hair in a fit of fear and depression, and yet by the morning it had all grown back.  It was as if time had stopped for her body, determined to forever keep her the 17-year-old virgin that Spike had kidnapped.

"But those days are all over, Willow," she promptly reminded her somber reflection.  "Now you're mortal again, with all that mortality entails."  Still, she continued staring at her own image, gnawing on her bottom lip until she was positive that she couldn't actually see her hair growing right before her very eyes.  Even then Willow realized that she wouldn't know for sure until the following morning.  If she awoke to find her hair still short, it would be proof positive that she was once again truly normal.

No, not normal...just mortal, she corrected herself silently.

In the meantime, she had an evening of angst and pain to keep her mind from her immortality issues.  Might as well get ready.

"Bloody hell," she exclaimed softly, looking at all of the new clothes in her closet with alarm.  "What am I going to wear?"

***

Willow was once again staring at her reflection unhappily.  Something wasn't quite right, she told herself with a critical eye to how she looked in the brown leather pants, and a semi-sheer black long sleeve shirt, which was partially unbuttoned to reveal the black camisole beneath it.  She liked the outfit and she was confident that she looked quite good in it.  Nevertheless, something was out of place, and Willow was fully aware of what that was.  Taking a deep breath, as if bracing herself for pain, Willow grabbed the ring on her left hand and yanked it off, bandages and all. Now her previous feelings of discomfort were replaced with that eerie 'something is missing' feeling, which was no better.

Before she put the ring away, Willow couldn't help reading the tiny inscription one more time:  With all my heart and all my soul, I am with you.  Always.

She felt the familiar sting of tears but held them back as she put the ring into her childish ballerina-topped jewelry box.  Next came the necklace, and with a silent prayer to someone that she was doing the right thing, she lifted the silver chain over her head.  She held it out in front of her, watching the cross dangle before her, the ceiling light playing off its delicately carved surface.

"Pull yourself together, Willow," she muttered to herself as a tear trickled down her cheek.  "It's only jewelry."

Why was it so damn difficult to put these things away now?  She'd only just gotten them back, after all.  But it was hard, painfully so, and as she finally closed the lid on the jewelry box, Willow felt like she were shutting the door on a huge portion of her life.  The left her with a hollow feeling throughout.

Willow was just about to weaken and put the cross back on--after all, she had bought the necklace herself, it wasn't like it was a gift from Angelus--when the phone rang.

Wondering what kink in her plan Buffy had come up with, Willow grabbed the phone as she flopped back down on the bed.  "Hello."

"Red."

Willow sat up straight, automatically wiping the dampness from her face.  "Spike?"

"Ooh, you're quick tonight," Spike chuckled.  "Have many men calling you 'Red' now, do you?"

"Not yet, but the night is still young," she replied, smiling to herself as she ran a hand through her shortened, very red hair.

"Sound surprised to hear from me.  Am I interrupting something?  The dog come over to play?  Have him leashed to the headboard, do you?"

"It's, you know, kinda strange to talk to you over the phone," she retorted honestly, not bothering to respond to his teasing.  "My favorite Victorian vampire using a phone?  My world's all askew," she teased, earning another warm chuckle from the vampire.

"Can get one for you, too, if you want, Red.  Might come in handy."

"You want to buy me a phone?" she laughed, wondering in the back of her mind if it would be made by a demon, like her guitar was.

"Not just a phone, one of those portable jobs.  You know, the kind the yuppies use and then don't bother to turn the ringer off at the pictures and you end up having to break their necks so as not to miss one single moment of violence and gore on big screen."

"Oh. Ewww, Spike," Willow groaned, trying hard not to picture Spike sitting in a movie theater, surrounded by dead yuppies.  "Remind me not to go to the movies with you."  She shuttered, and Spike chuckled.  "So, you have a cell phone now?" she asked, hoping she didn't sound too resentful about his improved finances.  "I just can't picture you paying bills and such, Spike.  It's just not right."

Willow heard the unmistakable sound of a lighter being flicked, then Spike inhaling.  "That's why I have Dalton," he said after a moment.  "Best bloody accountant vampire in town.  Fixed it all up for me, takes care of all that financial rot."

"How convenient," she drawled.  "I'm honored that you took a moment from your Rockefeller lifestyle to give me a call."

"Pet, don't get snippy," he admonished, but he sounded amused.  "Just called to see what you're up to tonight.  More playtime with the Scoobies?"

"I'm getting ready to go to the Bronze."  She paused, a slight hitch to her breath.  "Oz is playing tonight."

The was another pause before Spike spoke up.  "The dog's playing?  May have to catch that myself...pretty good trick, that."

Willow sighed.  "Don't you have something better to do?"

"Like you said, pet, the night's still young.  Plenty of time."

"No, you'd better stay away from the Bronze," she advised.  "Buffy will be there, and I don't feel up to another one of your Academy Award-winning productions tonight.  Besides, where's Drusilla?"

"Sleeping."

Willow snorted.  "She sure sleeps a lot."

Willow could almost here him grinning ear-to-ear on the other side of the satellite as he said, "I wore her out."

"Again?"

"I'm nothing if not consistent, Red," he retorted in a very-pleased-with-himself tone.   "You sure you're going to be okay tonight?"  There was a pause, then his voice became tighter.  "Are you going to see the git?"

"Xander?" Willow queried, fully aware that Spike was referring Angel.

"No, the other git...the one with the sloping forehead."

She sighed, falling back into the comfort of her pillows.  Instinctively, she reached for the cross about her neck, and frowned when she remembered why it wasn't there. "Not sure if he'll be there or not.  We kinda had a fight this morning in which I sorta demanded that he start acting like the old Angel."

"You did what?" Spike exclaimed, laughing.

"I asked him to pretend as if I didn't even exist from now on," she said in an embarrassed rush, "basically the way the old Angel used to treat me."

"Wouldn't count on it, Red."

"I know," she said dejectedly, wishing it were only that easy.  "But a girl can hope, can't she?  Which reminds me, he said you two had a little talk.  What did you two chat about, anyway?  Typical father-son stuff?" she asked almost hopefully.

"Just opened his eyes a bit.  Told him the truth...you'd think it was the first time he'd heard it."  Willow heard the soft sound of Spike slowly exhaling, and she could picture the tendrils of smoking drifting out from between the vampire's lips.  It was oddly comforting.  "Tell me what you and the soulful one argued about."

Willow shut her eyes as the whole ugly scene replayed itself in a heartbeat, and before she realized she was speaking, Willow was telling him the whole thing...the diary, the argument, and how it ended.  When she was done, there  was silence on the other end.

"Spike?"

"Still here, Red," he said in a tight voice, and Willow could picture him clenching his jaw on the other end of the phone.  "So, our old pal Angelus paid you a little visit, did he?"

"Just a little one," Willow said with a sigh.  "Really, it was more of a fly-by than an actual visit."

"Did he scare you, Red?"

"A little maybe...sort of...oh, I don't know, Spike.  It's so confusing...when I'm near him I don't know what to feel anymore.  My heart is telling me one thing, my brain another--mainly, run away--and then my body..." Willow groaned, flinging an arm over her eyes as if to fend off memories. "Don't even get me started on what my body is telling me."

More silence from Spike's end, so Willow continued to get if all off her chest.  "I don't understand what he wants from me, Spike.  Forgiveness?  I gave him that already!  Why can't he just leave it at that?  But...but it's like he expects something more or he's pushing for something else and--"

"For what, Red?" Spike interrupted brusquely.  "What else is the damned wanker pushing for?"

"I honestly don't know, Spike.  Acknowledgement maybe?  Acceptance?  I don't know...I don't know how to give him what he wants.  One minute we can be having a fairly normal conversation and the next...the next he's all Irish brogue and dark innuendo.  He's confusing me...again..." she added so softly that Spike almost missed it.

"Say the word, Willow...just say the bloody word and you won't have to worry about him," his voice was growing angrier with each word.  "Bloody hell, you don't even have to say the word, Red.  Just the first syllable...the first *letter* and he's dust."

"No!  Spike, please, that's not the solution...in fact, that's *never* the solution!  It'll be okay, really.  Er, besides, I have a plan," Willow fibbed, but she was quickly working on one.   Anything  would be better than Spike's 'final' solution.

There was a pause on the other end.  "A plan?" he said with obvious sarcasm.  "What have I told you about plans, love?  Waste of bloody time, aren't they?  Best laid plans, hell in a hand basket, etc., etc., etc..."

"Oh, but this one's easy," she informed him.  "Um, coolness and distance," she blurted off the top of her head.  "Well, I guess it's more of a theme than a plan, really," she amended when Spike made no comment.

Another pause on the other end, then Willow thought she heard him chuckle as he said, "Distance, eh?  Going to New Zealand?"

Willow giggled.  "Not that kind of distance, Spike.  The other kind."

"Ah, the painful kind, then."

"Yep."

"Always a favorite."

"Oh, and there's more to it than that, Spike," she went on to say, getting excited now as the idea started firming up in her head.  "I'm going to be China."

"You lost me, Red.  You're going to turn yourself into pottery to avoid the great poof?  Bit extreme, don't you think?"

"China, as in, The Great Wall of," Willow informed him, sitting back up as her theme started to take shape.  "Yep, I think walls and distance ought to do it."

"Not that your plan to turn yourself into a poor communist country isn't a sound one, pet, but remember...I promised that I'd protect you from him, Willow, and I meant it.  Still do.  I won't let him hurt you, *ever*."

"Even when I'm old and wrinkled?" she teased in response.

There was a very long silence.  Willow was just about to tell him she'd been kidding, sort of, when he said, "That'll never happen, Red."

"I dunno," she said, trying again to interject humor back into their conversation.  "Think of all those decades I didn't use sunblock.  I'm thinkin' I'll have so many crows feet people will mistake me for a scarecrow."

"I said, it *won't* happen, Willow," he repeated, his voice sounding so odd and thick with emotion that she chalked it up to a bad connection.  "Time to go, Red," he said suddenly.  "Wouldn't want you to keep the Scabby Gang waiting, would we?"

The phone went dead before Willow could correct him or even say goodbye.  Rolling her eyes at the intricacies of vampire friendships, Willow put the phone back in its cradle.  In spite of the odd turn their conversation had taken, Spike was right about one thing.  It was time to go.  After one last look at herself in the mirror, Willow headed for the door.  Her mind now preoccupied with the evening ahead, Willow didn't give Spike's odd words another thought.

***

The sun had yet to set when Willow arrived, safe and sound, at The Bronze. Even though she was nervous, she didn't have to remind herself to keep her chin high and a small, mysterious smile on her lips as she glided through the front door.  Weaving in and out of the throng near the entrance, Willow ventured deeper in to the club.  She never wavered or paused to look for her friends.  While her eyes casually searched them out from the second she'd entered the building, she didn't allow any hesitation in her stride or her manner.  It was second nature to her now...always act as if you own the place, even if you've never been there before.  Spike would be so proud.

She easily found Buffy, Xander, and Cordelia sitting at one of their usual tables, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she didn't notice Angel anywhere in the club.  This was going to be hard enough without him around, even if it was just prolonging the inevitable.

Emboldened by Angel's absence, Willow quickly got a soda at the bar, then strolled over to the gang.

"Hi guys," Willow said just loud enough to be heard over the music.  She stood tall and confident as all eyes turned to her and grew wide with surprise.  Except for the soft, wet sounds of jaws dropping open, not a peep emanated from her friends.

Willow grinned wickedly as she slid into an empty stool between Xander and Buffy, which she was pleased to note would also afforded her a good view of the stage.  She glanced around at her still-shocked friends.  "Um, I'll be right here when you find those tongues of yours."
 
Xander found his first.  "Willow?"

Buffy came in a close second.  "Your hair!  It's...shorter!"

"And red!" Xander exclaimed, his jaw still a little slack.

Willow took a sip of her drink, trying unsuccessfully to hide the grin on her face.  "It's always been red, Xander.  Now it's just a little...redder."

Cordy was shaking her head in utter disbelief.  "And clothes...the clothes are new...and strangely fashionable..."

"But not red," Xander kindly pointed out.

"How could you do this to me, Willow?" Buffy said in a pitiful voice, her lower lip quivering dramatically.

Willow sat up ramrod straight, almost choking on her soda.  The smile was gone now, having been flattened by a good-sized chunk of guilt.  "Pardon?" she squeaked.

"You--you did the complete makeover thing without me!"

Willow visibly sagged with relief.  Looking at the Slayer now, she could see that the blonde had been joking.  It was only Willow's over-active sense of guilt where Buffy was concerned that kept turning small things like dropped donuts and solo shopping trips into opportunities for undue anguish.

"Oh, well, I--"

"I mean, isn't it in the best friends by-laws somewhere that no one may undergo a makeover alone?" Buffy demanded, looking to Cordelia for support.

"Please!" Cordelia barked, getting to her feet.  She waltzed around Xander to  where Willow was seated.  "Everyone knows that it's an unspoken rule that you don't even go shopping alone, Willow.   But this..." Cordelia said, looking her up and down with a critical eye.  "This is sacrilege...."

Willow tried not to laugh or roll her eyes at how serious Cordelia seemed to be taking the change in her appearance.  "You don't like it?" she asked all of them in a calm voice that contained not a smidgen of uncertainty.  Willow wasn't fishing for compliments, but she was profoundly curious about their reaction.  This could very well be a dress rehearsal for the moment when she told them the whole truth about her life.

"You look..." Xander paused, obviously searching for the right words.  And that's when Willow saw it.  It was just a glimmer, a brief flash really, but it was definitely there.  Something that she had yearned to see in her oldest friend's eyes for years.  It was as if for the first time, Xander noticed she was a girl...a woman.

Great, Willow chuckled to herself.  All it took was a haircut, a pair of leather pants, and a trip back in time to get Xander to notice me.

Shaking his head as if trying to jar his brain into action, Xander tried again.  "Your hair...and the, um, clothes...the *leather* clothes...you look...er, well, you look..."

Willow took pity on her friend.  "Is that a good inability to speak or a bad one?  Are you in shock or awe?" she teased mercilessly, for a brief moment allowing herself to enjoy her ability to render the boy speechless.  After all, the old Willow deserved at least that much.

He visibly relaxed.  "Definitely awe, Willow.  You look so..."  Xander trailed off into distressed silence again, then sighed.  "Damn.  There's that awe again..."

"You look great, Willow," Buffy reassured her, leaning over to give her half a hug.  "I love the hair, both the color and the cut.  I just wish you'd told me.  You know I would have somehow gotten out of training and studying today to go with you.  Angel would have understood."

"Um, hello...what about me?" Cordelia's arms were about her chest, and she was tapping her foot.  "Shopping, hair, clothes...these are a few of my favorite things!"

"And let us not forget raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens," Xander joked, but Cordelia simply scowled at him.

"I'm serious," she said, slinking back into her seat across from Willow.  "I mean, I know we aren't exactly bosom buddies, Willow. It's not like we have anything in common other than the joy that is the Hellmouth, but..."  Cordelia shrugged halfheartedly, glancing almost shyly between Willow and her own half-empty coffee cup.  "I had always dreamed that when this day finally came, I'd be the one to point you away from the Jacquelyn Smith Collection to Anne Taylor instead...or at least Tommy Hillfiger.  And then we could have gone to my stylist, Jacques...Who knows, we might have even had fun."

Willow was surprised to find herself touched by the unfamiliar suggestion of hurt she saw on the cheerleader's face.  Strangely, she found herself actually wanting to get to know Cordelia better.  Looks like it's time to give up my membership in the 'We Hate Cordelia' club, and all it took was spending a century with assorted demons to make Cordelia's company seem like a good thing, she grinned to herself.

"I'm sure we would have had fun, Cordelia.  It's just that this was something I had to do by myself.  It was kinda spur of the moment, too."

Cordelia sniffed, but some of the distress seemed to leave her face.  "So it was some kind of last minute fashion pilgrimage?" she asked hopefully.

"Exactly," Willow said with some relief.  "Yep, relatively speaking, it was definitely spur of the moment.  And I promise that next time I'll ask both you and Buffy to go with me, okay?  To be honest, I really could have used your help.  I felt a little out of my depth at the mall today."  That seemed to cheer Cordelia right up.  "Guess I'm not used to so many options," she added softly, doubting that Cordelia would approve of many of the rest of her purchases.

"Well, this outfit gets a thumbs up from me, especially the pants, so I think you did good," Buffy said.  "Although, if someone had asked me a month ago if I thought that Willow Rosenberg would ever wear leather pants, I'd have bet my stake collection that you'd have stayed a cotton-blend gal for ever."

"Where'd you get them?" Cordelia inquired.

Willow sat up a little straighter, a triumphant grin on her face.  "Oh, in that little boutique in the mall that's between the pretzel shop and Victoria's Secret.  You know, the one that always used to scare me because the mannequins were headless but somehow they still seemed to be watching you?" she prompted Buffy, receiving a nod of understanding in return.  "Ooh, and they were even on sale!"

Cordelia grinned.  "You did good then."

"Victoria's Secret?" Buffy asked, eyes wide and sparkling with curiosity.  "Don't tell me that you're too good for Hanes Her Way now, Willow?" she teased, making Willow laugh.

"Well, actually, I did buy a few--"

Xander cleared his throat, and Willow thought she detected a slight flush to her oldest friend's face as well.  "Um, ladies, male present!" he reminded them, pointing to himself. "No discussion of lacy undergarments, er, female problems, or men who are better looking than me."

After promising to show both Buffy and Cordelia all of her purchases, the conversation turned to more everyday banter.  Soon, the lights dimmed, the canned music faded, and the members of Dingoes Ate My Baby took the stage.  With the first familiar strains of 'She Knows', the band had Willow's complete attention.

The Dingoes' music surrounded Willow, enveloping her with its easy familiarity until she lost herself in it.  She remembered their songs, every single one, and soon Willow found herself singing softly along.  Just as she had in her previous life, Willow focused in on Oz.  She simply watched him for a while, the slight tilt to his head, the occasional need to concentrate revealed by a furrowed brow, his compact stance, and the rare hint of a smile.

But it was different, painfully so, just as she had known it would be.  Oz didn't seek her out in the audience like he used to, their eyes meeting during certain refrains that had once held a special place in both their hearts.  There were no secret smiles exchanged when Oz managed to make it through a particularly difficult passage that he'd rehearsed before her a hundred times.  As much as she loved The Dingoes' music, the tunes felt hollow without those personal touches, lacking in the deeper meaning that always sent a secret thrill down her spine.

As their set progressed, Willow's feeling of melancholy multiplied until she could no longer look at Oz's face.  It was too painful waiting for his eyes to find hers.  Instead, she focused on those hands that she'd always loved and the music that they were making.  By the fifth song in their first set, 'Pain,' Willow was completely caught up in the mechanics of the music, trying to memorize chords and decipher the fingering.  Luckily, everyone else at the table seemed intent to listen to the band as well, because without realizing it, Willow's fingers were discretely airplaying along with Oz under cover of the table.  This simple act, the 'making' of music, deadened some of the pain until her eyes were drifting shut in something akin to meditative concentration.

***

From the veiled shadows of The Bronze, Angel scanned the crowd the moment he arrived.  He immediately spotted Buffy, Xander, and Cordelia sitting at a table with some other girl he didn't recognize, but there was no sign of Willow.  Oz's band was on  stage already, their music easily filling the small club. Angel frowned as he glanced at the clock above the bar.  She should have been there by now...it was dark out, and according to Buffy, Willow had promised she'd be there before dark.

Moving a few steps further into the crowd, ignoring the interested looks he was receiving from members of both sexes, Angel searched the throng of mingling young people once again for the one woman who had occupied his thoughts and his dreams for more than a century.  Not finding her, Angel began to worry...and grow angry.  How could Buffy and the others just sit there when Willow had failed to show up as promised?  Was he the only one who remembered how dangerous Spike was?

He'd stalked halfway to their table when the stranger next to Buffy turned slightly in her seat, giving him a look at her profile.

It was Willow!  Or at least a good facsimile thereof, although the hair...the clothes...

Relieved to see that Willow was indeed safe, yet shocked by her unfamiliar appearance, Angel couldn't quite keep the bewilderment from tinting his voice as he came up behind her.

"You cut your hair."  To Angel's own ears, his voice sounded strained and overly harsh, and yet Willow barely flinched in response.  Amazing what spending decades with a vampire like Spike can do for one's self-control, he thought wryly.

Without turning to look at him, Willow simply shrugged.  "It's just a little trim."

"A trim!" he retorted more sharply than he intended.  "There's barely anything left of it, lass."

He wasn't thinking clearly.  In truth, he wasn't sure he was thinking at all when he reached out to run his fingers through her shortened locks.  It was as if his hand had a mind of its own, an insatiable need confirm that her long auburn hair was truly gone.

At the completely unexpected feeling of Angel's hand in her hair, all thoughts of the music and her plan to remain cool and distant towards the vampire began to fade away.  The surreal sensation of his cool fingers lightly grazing the bare nape of her neck drew a lengthy shudder from the redhead.  Then, mortified by such a strong, involuntary reaction to something as simple as his touch yet again, she spun in her seat, ready to demand that he get his hands off of her!  Instead, Willow's breath caught, the rebuke born of embarrassed confusion dying on her lips when her hasty movement served only to entangle Angel's fingers more firmly in her hair, pulling him nearer.

Bloody hell, he was close!  Too close, she realized when she found herself eye-level with his broad chest, now only inches away.  Willow kept her line of vision trained on the center of his silvery-gray silk shirt, afraid of what she might see if she allowed herself to look up and peer into the dark depths of Angel's eyes.  In her hastily made plan, he was *never* this close!

Well, at least this time his shirt is buttoned, she noted, swallowing past the lump that was rapidly forming in her throat.

When Angel somehow managed to move even closer, Willow stiffened.  Maybe it was the shadowy tinge of disappointment she felt at *not* being able to catch another glimpse of his bare chest, which was so tantalizingly close.  Or perhaps it was the particularly vivid flashback to a previous time when the soulless Angelus had used her long hair to hold her captive against his hard body.  But for whatever reason, the last vestiges of Willow's composure, and her ill-fated plan along with it, dissolved under a deluge of conflicting emotions.

"Apparently, it still isn't short enough!" she snapped churlishly, as much at herself as at the vampire who now seemed frozen before her.

Feeling a desperate need to be free of him, Willow tried twisting her head, shaking her hair, anything to free herself, but it only made the situation worse.  Her forehead wrinkled in frustration, Willow finally grabbed his wrist and began the task of manually untangling her hair from his fingers.  Her own fingers trembled at the contact and her breath grew ragged, further feeding the sense of shame she felt for her desire, fear and guilt.  The color rose in her cheeks as she worked to free herself, the whole time feeling as if history were repeating itself, taunting her, punishing her for the warring feelings that both Angelus and Angel enticed within her.

Out of the corner of her eye, Willow could see Buffy's mouth open and close a few times, but The Slayer never managed to utter an actual word.  She, like the others at the table, could only sit and stare at the strange behavior of their two friends.  The vampire made no move to untangle himself.  He continued to stare at her hair wrapped around his pale, trembling fingers as if she'd dyed it lime green instead of just a richer shade of red.

"The color..." he murmured thickly, still seemingly mesmerized by the stark contrast of colors.

After freeing the last few strands of her hair from between his finger and thumb, Willow thrust Angel's hand away from her with unnecessary force.  Simultaneously, she jumped off the stool and away from the vampire, hoping she'd be able to compose herself when he wasn't so near.  Her tone was still brusque as she finally found the courage to raise her eyes to his bewildered face. "It's called *red*."

Appearing to have come out of his odd stupor, Angel straightened, his hands automatically finding his pockets.  "Red," he repeated dryly.  His gaze quickly grazed her neck, which was no longer hidden underneath long hair, and rose briefly to meet her stern glare before suddenly shooting back down to a spot on her throat.  His eyes narrowed, his whole body stiffening, but before Willow could decipher the odd, almost betrayed look on the vampire's face, it was gone. Angel was now coolly taking in her whole appearance, from the top to bottom, his eyes lingering momentarily on her lean legs and hips in the leather pants.

Buffy's overly tight voice broke the uncomfortable silence that had settled upon their table, but not the tension.  "She looks beautiful, doesn't she, Angel?"

Angel didn't answer, but he finally stopped his inspection long enough to look Willow in the eye.  His tight-lipped expression left little doubt in Willow's mind that Angel wasn't altogether pleased by what he saw. Telling herself that was a good thing despite the twinge of disappointment she felt, Willow squared her shoulders, returning his intense look.

Xander cleared his throat, loudly, and Buffy repeated her question.  "She looks beautiful, doesn't she, Angel?"  Her voice was commanding this time, practically willing the vampire to say the polite thing.

With a barely perceptible shaking of his head, as if trying to wake himself from a stupor, Angel turned to the others.  Under their severe glares, Angel softened.  Appearing embarrassed by his behavior, the vampire's gaze fell to the table as he issued a hefty sigh that resembled more of a moan.  His fingers traced tiny patterns on the table top, and with a disconcerted shrug, he said softly, "Willow is always beautiful."

But it was too late.  The moment Angel had turned from her, Willow had silently slipped away.  She hadn't heard the vampire's delayed but genuine compliment, and she hadn't wanted to.  She'd known it was coming.  While perhaps a bit slow on the uptake because of shock, Angel was still a gentleman.  Willow had no doubt that he would eventually say the socially correct thing and pay her a compliment, whether he meant it or not.  Flattery was an art form during much of the vampire's past, a skill that she remembered Angelus being very adept at.  With Buffy glaring at him the way she was,  Willow fully expected Angel to fall back on the old rules of civility.  Nevertheless, even if the compliments were genuine, Willow did not want to hear them.  After all, why should she care what he thought of the change in her appearance?  As long as he didn't see her as Rose anymore, then her mission was successful.

As she made her way to the bar, Willow had to repeatedly reminded herself that the important thing was that she looked different, she was no longer a constant reminder to Angel of any of their assorted pasts.  That should make things easier now, shouldn't it? she wondered as she insinuated herself between two boys who were leaning against the bar.  Completely oblivious to the appreciative but awkward glances the freshmen were giving her, Willow was struck again by Spike's comments about their distinct lack of planning abilities. Chuckling to herself at both the memory and the apparent truth in the statement, Willow caught the bartender's attention.  She was just about to order a soda, although she would have preferred something stronger, when Devon's voice came over the microphone, breaking through the applause to announce that the band was going to take a short break.  After a long glance over her shoulder at Oz, Willow ordered two sodas instead.

***

Angel had watched Willow walk away from him and had chosen, against all instincts, not to follow her.  He needed time to collect his thoughts, and hoped that by the time she returned to the table, he'd be better able to express himself.  Unfortunately, the other's didn't seem to understand his plan.

"What was that?" Xander's bewildered voice interrupted the vampire's musings.  "Angel, my whole image of you is blown, man.  That was...pathetic," Xander exclaimed in a scolding tone of voice.  "Even more pathetic than my own less than stellar performance."

Angel grimaced but offered no excuses for his deplorable behavior.  What was he going to say, anyway?  Certainly not the truth.  It's not like he could tell them how many times he'd dreamed of running his fingers through Willow's long hair, tangling his hands in the soft auburn locks as he kissed her.  Nor could he tell them how that darker inner voice of his was demanding to know why his Rose thought she could change her appearance without his permission.  That same voice--the one that he was normally able to keep such stringent control over, except where Willow was concerned--was also demanding to know where that 'new' bite mark on her throat had come from.  Angel was certain that this particular mark of Spike's hadn't been there when she'd been his 'guest' in London.  Nor could he tell them how it was taking every ounce of strength that he possessed to tell that very same inner voice to stifle itself because he had no true claim on Willow anymore.

No.  He couldn't begin to tell them any of that, so all he could offer by way of explanation was a sheepish look and a hang-dog expression.

Despite Angel's best attempt at displaying his self-disgust without revealing the true reasons behind it, Buffy scowled at him anyway as she sipped at her drink.  "I would have walked away from you too, Angel.  Just what were you thinking?"

"It's just that...she looked so different," Angel grumbled quite pathetically.  "In all the time I've known her, she's always looked the same.  Can you blame me for being surprised?" he asked himself aloud.  "It was kind of a shock, and..."  Angel trailed off, still not able to put his feelings into any true order.  "You know, a warning would have been nice," he added weakly.

Xander patted the vampire on the back reassuringly.  "I've been giving this a lot of thought since my own sad reaction to the new Willow Rosenberg.  I was struck a bit speechless myself," Xander admitted in answer to Angel's questioning look.  "I think the next time a woman catches us off guard with a new look, we should try something like this..."  Xander turned to a surprised Cordelia, took her hand in his, and gazed lovingly at her.  "First, take her hand," he instructed the vampire, using Cordy as his model.  "Then look deeply into her eyes, with a slightly awestruck look on your face--"

To Angel, the youth looked more like he was in pain than awestruck, but he didn't want to interrupt the kid when he was on a roll.

"--then say something like, 'I don't believe we've met, for I know I could never forget a woman as ravishing as you...'" he told Cordelia in a warm, husky voice.    Cordelia sighed happily as a blush rose to her cheeks.  She leaned in to reward her boyfriend with a kiss just as Xander dropped her hands to turn and refocus on his reluctant but amused pupil. "Think you can handle that, Deadboy?"

"You been reading romance novels again, Xander?" Buffy laughed as Cordy smacked Xander on the arm for his teasing.

"Nah," he said with a grin.  "Three's Company.  I think it was the episode where Jack hits on Janet and Chrissy." Cordelia and Buffy laughed.  "You know," Xander started in on Angel again, "running your fingers through her hair was a good touch, but next time you may want to try not to actually get tangled in it.    Also, you may want to consider kissing her hand.  Now, you wouldn't catch me dead doing that because, frankly, it would make me look like a sissy boy, but you old-fashioned vamp types can probably pull it off."  He frowned.  "Oh, on second thought, you may want to rethink the term 'ravishing' since you're a vampire."

"Oh, I dunno about that," Buffy admitted with a sly smile.  "I think that whether you're of the living or not, you can't go wrong with terms like 'ravishing' or even 'delectable'.  They sound *way* better than 'cute' and 'pretty', which in my book are only one slippery little step away from 'she has a good personality'," Buffy said matter of factly, then she wrinkled her nose.  "Although you should probably still avoid saying things like, 'I hunger for you.' It'd sound downright creepy coming from a vampire."

Despite his inner turmoil, Angel found himself smiling at his friends' playful antics. "Thanks for the advice."

"You so need to get a grip, Angel," Cordelia piped up, finally adding her two cents.  "Women change their hair.  It's what we do. Besides, Willow needed a change.  She's had that same 'Oh, please don't look at me...I'd rather blend into the background' look since kindergarten."  Angel's eyes narrowed at the brunette.  "Hey, don't get all growly on me!" she protested.  "I'm only saying that it's about time she quit trying to hide behind her long hair and baggy clothes.  I'm not saying she'll ever be the Homecoming Queen...or Prom Queen...or even the queen of that joke of a dance that they call the Winter Ball...but she's actually quite pretty when she tries to be."

Cordelia had taken a few sips from her enormous cup of coffee when she noticed everyone was staring at her.

"What?"  The cheerleader brushed the tip of her nose.  "Is there something on my face?"

Xander leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.  "You paid Willow a compliment.  Several actually."

"Still, her accessorizing leaves much to be desired," the cheerleader hurriedly added.  "She didn't have on any jewelry...no necklace, earrings, rings...nothing.  Oh yeah...the girl still has a long way to go."

"Now there's the Cordy we all know and fear," Xander teased as he slid an arm about her shoulders.

"Er, did you say she wasn't wearing a ring?"  Angel tried to make the absurd question sound casual, but by the raised eyebrows on the two girls faces, he knew he'd failed miserably.

"Um, no...no rings," Cordelia confirmed.  "Thank God she'd taken off whatever that mess was on her finger she'd been wearing lately.  I think it was actually made of Band-Aids..."

The pain in Angel's chest from Cordelia's words was worse than when Buffy managed to land one of her powerful kicks. He slumped wearily onto the nearest stool.  The other night when Willow had agreed to continue wearing his ring, Angel had taken that as a good sign.  Not a happily-ever-after sign, but at least a step in the right direction.

Angel groaned inwardly.  It was beginning to look like there was no 'right direction' where Willow was concerned, no matter how lightly he stepped.

Unaware of Angel's pain, the others continued talking.  It was only at the mention of Spike's name that Angel refocused on the conversation going on around him.

"Yes, our little Willow is growing up," Buffy said with a happy grin.

"Willow?  Our Willow?" Xander sat up straight, a hint of panic in his voice.  "Since when did she care about how she looked?  Nope, I suspect she's up to something...some cunning plan."  He slapped his hand on the table, as if to say 'Eureka'!  "I bet she's hoping Spike won't recognize her or maybe he'll hate her new look and leave her alone!"

"Please."  Buffy rolled her eyes.  "Are we forgetting Spike's latest nickname for her?  It's *Red*, remember?"

All eyes turned to Willow, who was now standing by the stage, talking to the red-headed guitar player as the band took their first break between sets.

"And what's the deal with her and Oz?  She becoming a groupie?" Xander asked the others suspiciously.  "It would explain the leather pants."

"I dunno," Buffy said with a shrug as she turned back to the table.  "We haven't had much of a chance to talk lately, what with summer school and her accident and everything.  Trust me though...if there's something to know, I'll find out.  Unless you know something, Angel.  You've seen her more than I have lately."

"You okay, man?" Xander was staring at Angel, who had yet to answer Buffy's question.  "You look even paler than usual."

Angel abruptly stood up.  "I'll take the patrol tonight, Buffy," he said stiffly, his eyes still glued to the couple talking by the stage.  The others followed suit, shifting in their seats to get another good look at Willow and Oz.

"But don't you think..." Buffy began, turning back the vampire, but he was already gone.

***
 

Willow kept what she hoped was an interested look on her face as she struggled to remain focused on her ever-shifting conversation with Oz.  Although she managed not to look over at them, her mind kept wandering back to the table where her friends were sitting.  She couldn't help wondering what they were talking about, what they were saying to Angel.

They must think I've gone insane, she thought to herself.  They're probably telling Angel that it's time to pad the walls in one of the rooms at Slayer Central.  As long as that room isn't pink, too....

Hoping to hide her half-grin, half-grimace at a mental picture of her bouncing off Pepto-Bismal-shaded walls while strapped firmly into a pale pink straightjacket, Willow took another sip of her soda.  Movement out of the corner of her eye focused her scattered attention.  Angel was leaving, and as she watched him disappear into the crowd by the door, Willow felt herself physically relax.  With the vampire gone, Willow could finally give the guitar player her full attention.  She could only hope that Oz hadn't noticed how her mind had been wandering.  Everything else about me is divided...why shouldn't my attention be the same? she snickered to herself, trying to remember what she and Oz had just been talking about.

She could vaguely recall an initial awkward discussion about the merits of sugar-induced energy bursts stemming from orange soda. Then, at some point the conversation turned to music, guitars, and the physical dangers inherent in the E-flat, diminished ninth chord. (You could lose a finger, they had both agreed.)

Didn't that sound familiar?  Now if only she had some animal crackers...

Willow muffled a groan at that thought, finally admitting to herself that she'd been trying to relive past conversations with Oz.  Then much to her horror, Willow realized from the odd look on Oz's face that he must have heard her embarrassed moan.

Willow tried to cover up the faux pas by pretending to stifle a yawn, although afterwards she would wonder if pretending to be sleepy in his company was any better than groaning in despair.

"Sorry, Oz," she offered sheepishly.  "Guess I'm a little tired."

"I've heard sleep is good for that," he offered with an understanding smile that magically banished Willow's discomfort.

"Hey, I've heard that, too!  Amazing how those vicious rumors get started."  Willow couldn't keep the happy grin from her face.  Even though they'd never had this conversation before, for a moment it truly felt like one that they might have had.

"Isn't it?" Oz actually chuckled, much to Willow's delight.  "For an accomplished rumormonger, you seem to know your guitars.  I didn't think you played."

Her smile faded as his innocent comments forced her back into reality.  "Oh, well, er..."

Luckily, Devon interrupted Willow's stammering as he bounded back onto the stage, followed closely by the Dingoes' drummer.  Willow ignored the knowing looks they shot her way.

"Looks like our time is up," Oz said in a somewhat regretful tone, and Willow flinched at his choice of words.  "Oh, if you hear any more interesting rumors...like what to do when you're hungry..."

"You'll definitely be the first to know, Oz," she said warmly before turning to walk back to her friends.

"Thanks for the soda," he called after her, climbing to his feet as the other band members began to warm up behind him.

Willow shot the grinning musician a final departing smile over her shoulder, but she forced herself to keep walking away.  She was quite sure she'd made a big enough fool out of herself for one night.  Not that Oz seemed to mind.  Still, there was no need to push her luck.

As she approached the table where Buffy, Xander, and Cordelia were sitting, she noticed them all staring at her.  Smiling as she resumed her previous seat, Willow pretended not to see Xander elbowing Buffy, obviously prodding her to say something.

"Willow, about Angel..."  Willow held up a hand to cut Buffy off, but it didn't stop The Slayer.  "He's just a little rusty with the compliment thing.  Maybe back in his day it wasn't, er, cool to, um..."

"Be civil to a woman?" Cordelia offered.

Seeing the sympathetic looks on her friends' faces, Willow tried to put them at ease.  She didn't want or need their pity.  "Don't worry, guys," she said with a light-heartedness that she didn't feel.  "I'm not upset about that."  It wasn't exactly a lie, but it was far from the truth.

"Of course you aren't," Buffy said, brightening.  "After all, if anyone understands Angel's little, er, idiosyncrasies, it's you, Willow."

"Um, yeah."  Willow quickly gulped down the rest of her warm, flat soda, ready to use the need for a refill as a convenient excuse to escape the current conversation if necessary.

"So, what's the deal with you and Oz, anyway?" Cordelia asked, eyeing the guitar player as they began the first song of the new set.

Willow glanced at him as well, once again remembering how he used to search her out in the crowd when he played.  At the moment, he was looking practically everywhere else, just as he had during the previous set.  "Absolutely nothing," she sighed.

Xander nodded.  "Ahh...same old, same old, then?"

"Don't I wish," she mumbled, her eyes still fixed on the musician.  Telling herself to stop staring at Oz, she gave Buffy a weak smile.  "He did tell me he liked my hair though."

Buffy shook her head, reaching over to gently squeeze Willow's hand.  "You know, it's a mixed-up world we live in when a werewolf pays better compliments than a vampire.  The way Angel reacted, you'd almost think he expected you to consult him first or something."

"Yeah, what is with that, anyway?" Cordelia questioned in her most philosophical voice.  "When I was a freshman, I dated this senior who also happened to be the center on the basketball team.  Brandon and I went out, like, twice...then I got a few subtle highlights in my hair, nothing so fake as Buffy's, and he freaked out!"  Buffy sat up straighter at Cordelia's comment, frowning, but Cordelia seemed not to notice.  "You'd think I'd worn white shoes after Labor Day!"

"Heaven forbid," Xander smirked, making Buffy and Willow smile even as Cordelia went on with her tirade.

"You go out with them twice and they think they own you!"  Cordelia's lament continued, causing Willow to blanch and her fingers to fly to Angelus's marks on her throat.  "Guess it's one of those weird vampire and basketball player things," she said with a shrug, not noticing Willow's distress.  Then Cordelia's eyes suddenly grew wider.  "Wait, you don't think Brandon was a vampire, do you?"

"More importantly, does Angel play basketball?" Xander deadpanned as he and Buffy tried not to laugh at Cordelia's strange thoughts.  Soon, they were all smiling.  Except Willow, who was wondering if Angel truly felt that he still had some sort of rights over her.

No...Angel wouldn't think that...he'd never even implied that he still thought of her as his property like Angelus had.  Dismissing her own thoughts as nonsense, Willow faked an easy tone.  "Either way, I don't think that quite applies in my situation, does it?"

Buffy grew more serious.  "I dunno, Wills.  Giles has often told us how possessive vampires can be.  Maybe in some way Angel considers you--"

"No!" Willow interrupted loudly, even surprising herself by the venom in her voice.  She quickly calmed herself, but there was still an edge to her tone  when she informed them, "Angel does not own me...no one does!"

"I know, Willow."

This time Willow did jump and look guiltily behind her.  Angel was walking slowly towards them.  His hands were in his pockets, his eyes a tad downcast...the epitome of the contrite vampire.

"After all, people don't own people..." he continued gently, using words that she had once spoken to Angelus.

Flushing, both in anger and embarrassment as she realized what he must have overheard, Willow wanted to spin on her stool, away from the demanding gaze of the vampire, not to mention the curious ones of her friends, but she couldn't seem to make herself move.

"I came back to apologize, Willow," he said smoothly, a gallant smile gracing his face.  "My behavior *today* has been wanting.  I should have told you immediately how beautiful you look, but I was...at a loss for words..."

Ignoring the sounds of the other girls' sighs, as well as Xander's 'thumbs up' approval to Angel, Willow shrugged, wearing an air of indifference that she didn't feel.  "There's no need."  She should have stopped there, but her lips just couldn't seem to stop flapping.  "After all, it's not like I did it for you," she blurted out.

"Didn't you?"

Cordelia's and Buffy's soft gasps didn't have nearly as much effect on Willow as Angel's knowing tone.  Surprised, she studied the vampire through narrowed eyes.  So, he'd figured out part of the reasoning behind the change in appearance already, had he?  Good, then maybe he'll take the hint, she mused.

Aware that everyone was staring at them again, waiting and curious, Willow forced a carefree smile, turning back to the stage and blatantly ignoring the vampire beside her.  "So much fuss over a few little changes.  I can't wait to see the looks on your faces when I show you the tattoo and the belly button ring."  She waited a beat for the full effect of her words to hit her friends, then quickly added one of her signature marathon-length babbles. "The mall wore me out so I think I'm going to call it a night...oh, look there's Trish from my Trig class last year...it looks like she's leaving and she lives on my street so I'll catch a ride with her...night everyone."

She was gone before the others knew what had hit them.

*****

From the catwalks that crisscrossed The Bronze high above the dance floor, Spike had watched it all with a strange sort of disgusted glee.

He'd seen everything, from the new Willow's regal entrance to her comical exit and everything in between.  And while he couldn't quite hear every word that she and the guitar-playing dog had exchanged, he hadn't missed a moment between Willow and Angel.  Not a word, not a look, not a touch nor any of the deeper meanings behind them all.

And he couldn't decide what he wanted to do more...beat Angel to a bloody pulp for the way he continued to torture Red, or laugh at how pathetic he was to continue pursuing Willow like some love-sick pup.  Yes, either Angel was an even more uncaring and selfish lout than all of his predecessors put together or he was an utterly pathetic fool.  Mostly likely both, Spike decided as he watched Angel take off after Willow's abrupt departure.

Spike glanced hungrily over the crowd, eyeing several easy and enticing targets, but he was already making for the exit himself.  His empty stomach could wait until he was sure Red was able to escape from Angel, one way or another.

*****

Still smiling at the look of shock on everyone's faces, Willow broke into an easy run the moment she was outside.  Like the tattoo and the bellybutton ring, there was no Trish, of course.  For that matter, she couldn't even be sure that there was a Trig class, but the little white lies had been necessary.  Without them, she was positive that her friends wouldn't let her leave alone, and she didn't want to ruin their fun, especially since she knew Buffy was hoping Jason would show up.  And worse yet, what if Angel felt the need to escort her home?  That would be bad.  After all, distance is much easier to keep when you're...well...at a distance.

Coming to a turn, Willow was casting one last look over her shoulder to make sure they hadn't followed, when she ran solidly into someone.  A decidedly male someone, she easily surmised from the feel of the broad chest, not to mention the large hands that immediately reached out to steady her.

"Angel," she sighed before she even bothered to look at the obstacle's face.  After all, who else would it be?

She could tell that he was suppressing a smile when she finally took a step back to meet his dark eyes.  "You sure do know how to make an exit, don't you?" he quipped.

"Your entrances aren't bad either," she retorted in a weary tone.  Sidestepping the vampire, Willow hurried around the corner, Angel at her heels, so that they couldn't be seen from the door of The Bronze.  "How'd you get in front of me?" Willow asked when she deemed they were safe from any possible prying eyes.

"Roof exit," he reminded her in a matter-of-fact tone.  "I ran along the rooftops until I saw you, then jumped down."

Willow frowned as she looked up at the buildings around them.  He must have jumped down several stories.  "That's cheating."

"And that isn't?" he teased, gesturing towards her hair.

"No, this is hair," she retorted smoothly, taking a casual step backwards to ensure that both she and her hair were out of his reach.  She had no intention of having to untangle herself from him again that night.  It's hard to be distant with someone you're physically intertwined with.

Noting her continued coolness toward him, Angel shoved his hands in his pockets.  This wasn't going the way he had planned.  He'd meant to apologize for his rudeness at the club, and had hoped they could talk at least civilly about what had happened that morning.  As hurt as he'd been by Willow's declarations earlier that day, Angel knew that he deserved a fair share of the blame.  He'd been cocky and arrogant, and he'd goaded her into it.  Basically, he'd behaved like Angelus.

Then she had to go and cut her hair, and again his response left much to be desired.  "You didn't have to...change, Willow," he said sincerely, wishing he knew what she was thinking that made her peer at him so warily, her body so stiff.

"Didn't I?  Angel, I'm not Rose anymore."

"I'm well aware of that," he told her, receiving a skeptical look in response.

"And I'm not 17-year-old Willow Rosenberg either," she hastily added.  "If these little outward change helps us *both* to remember that," she said, indicating her hair and clothes, "then it was money well spent.  Besides, I needed a change.  It isn't natural to keep the same hairstyle for more than a century... look how many you've gone through."

Angel grinned, relieved to see a flash of humor in her otherwise distant eyes.  "Have to change with the times, right? Besides, I didn't think my barbershop-quartet look would help me fit into 20th-century Sunnydale life," he said lightly.

Willow almost smiled in spite of herself.  And that irritated her.  How was she supposed to remain distant and cool if he couldn't hold at least a little  grudge like a certain blond vampire she knew?  She didn't want Angel to hate her, but a little bitterness on his part sure would help her cause.  It was so typical of him not to cooperate.

Hugging her arms about herself, Willow turned away from the vampire and continued towards home.  She wasn't about to let him pull her into a little light-hearted dialogue when she still had walls to build and distance to create, both physically and emotionally.  Unfortunately, Angel didn't appear to want to play along with her secret plan.

"Besides, I don't have much of a singing voice," he said in that teasing tone of his that she'd always found quite disarming, accent or no accent.

Willow walked faster, hoping that the stiff line of her back and the sound of her heels clacking sharply on the pavement might keep the vampire at bay.  Yet she was hardly surprised when after only a few paces the vampire was at her side, matching her stride for stride.

"I'm not even sure if I'm a tenor or a baritone," he continued dryly. "Perhaps I should sing a few bars of 'Danny Boy' for you, and you could tell me if I have a shot at the big time?"

Willow wouldn't allow herself to even glance at his face, no matter how much she wanted to see the mischievous light that she knew would be making his eyes sparkle in the soft moonlight, just as it had when he was alive. Instead she forced herself to ask in a flat tone: "If I admit that I was wrong this morning, will you go away?"

Angel only had to take a deep breath, ready to launch into the first bar of the old standard, before Willow was spinning to face him.  "I was wrong!" she fairly hissed at him.  "I admit it!  Just please...please don't sing..."  she begged.

Willow had no idea if Angel could actually sing or not, but that wasn't the point.  She knew it would be impossible to build a wall between them whether she was giggling at his utter lack of musical talent or enchanted by his melodious crooning.  Music was dangerous that way...it built bridges, not walls.

"You were wrong?  I can't imagine about what," he said, unable to keep a slightly triumphant grin from his face.

"Not that you seem to need an apology," she added haughtily, annoyed that he'd made a dent in her defenses so easily.  "You're hardly keeping up your end of the bargain!  How soon you seem to forget that you're supposed to be ignoring me, letting me blend into the background, remember?"

Angel could only stare at the redhead for a moment.  As far as apologies go, her offering was downright pathetic, even if her cheeks did seem to flush slightly at her own words.  And now she was angry with him for not doing as she had demanded, even though she was attempting to apologize for those exact same demands?  He supposed he'd be pretty angry if it weren't so damn amusing.

"I've tried brooding," he informed her after a moment, "and found that it didn't suit me.  While I can't see my reflection in the mirror, I have a feeling that it's not very attractive."

"Buffy didn't seem to mind," Willow shot back without thinking, and Angel's eyes darkened in response.

"And I suppose I have Spike to thank for your fondness of petty arguments?"

Willow shrugged, kicking at a stone in her path as she began walking towards home again.  "We like to think of it more as witty banter..."

Immediately at her side again, Angel cast her a knowing look that she caught out of the corner of her eye.

"...with a biting tone, of course..." she added, drawing a smirk from Angel for the bad pun.

They continued to walk in uncomfortable silence until Willow came to a standstill a couple of blocks from her house.  "I can take it from here," she said firmly, her hands on her hips as she kept her eyes trained on the road before her.  "We both know I don't really need an escort to save me from Spike--"

"Like hell you don't," he muttered angrily, looking back over his shoulder as if he expected to see the blond vampire pop up at any moment.

"--I just didn't want to ruin the gang's fun.  They've all been working so hard with school, and I know they're worried about me."  Guiltily, she bit her lip a moment, casting the vampire a sidelong glance.  "So why don't you go back, tell them that you made sure that I arrived home safely, and then have some fun yourself."

"Oh, am I allowed to have fun now?  I thought I was supposed to brood and mope and..."

"Lurk," Willow sighed when he didn't finish, finally turning to face the vampire head on.  She owed him a real apology.  "Angel, what I said this morning was wrong.  I knew it was wrong and unfair almost as soon as I said it, but..." She shrugged in desperation, hoping that would convey her confusion since words weren't serving her very well so far.  "I...I don't really want you to be all miserable and broody...."  Willow kept pausing, hoping the vampire would take pity on her, but he simply stared with waiting eyes that seemed to demand her compliance.

"What I'm trying to say is, that I do want you to be happy, Angel.  I want you to...just be yourself...and I'm sorry that..." She paused, choosing her words very carefully.  "I'm just really sorry."

Angel didn't try to stop the small smile from warming his face, even though he knew her words seemed too good to be true. He tilted his head to the side, regarding her thoughtfully.  "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure."  She smiled shyly back it him.  "I had no right to ask you to be anything but yourself.  The diary caught me off guard, I guess...and I overreacted, yet again."  She hesitated, as if catching her breath...or gathering courage.  "I...I want us to forget the whole thing ever happened, Angel.  I *need* to forget what happened."  After a moment, she looked at him with beseeching eyes, her voice equally pleading.  "Can you do that?"

At that moment, lost in the softness of her eyes, which had been so guarded all night, Angel felt as if he couldn't deny her anything. "Of course, Willow," Angel managed in a voice heavy with emotion.  "I can do that."

Her brows rose in an expression of surprise and something else Angel didn't quite understand.  "Oh...well...good!" she finally agreed, apparently relieved.  She smiled softly at the vampire one last time, then looked back down the street towards her home.  "Yes, this is a good thing," she said, nodding her head as if she were trying to convince herself.  "I-I think if we forget about everything that has happened between us, things will be a lot simpler when we have to work together.  Maybe we can stop...bringing out the worst in each other...hurting each other..."

Willow was walking away again, but something in her tone struck a warning chord in Angel, stopping him from following her.  "Willow?" he called after, as a terrifying thought occurred to him.

Without stopping, Willow cast him one last lingering look over her shoulder.  "Goodnight, Angel."

Angel's eyes screwed shut of their own accord, his head falling to his chest in anguish as Willow disappeared around the street corner.  He felt as if he'd been gutted for the second time that day because he realized what Willow had really meant.  She didn't want to just forget their argument this morning, she wanted to pretend as though nothing had ever happened between them, not while he was alive or while he was the soulless dead.

And just when he thought it couldn't get any worse...it, of course, did...

"Ooh, that had to hurt, mate," Spike cheerfully declared as he seemingly appeared out of nowhere to stand before him.  Although his head jerked up automatically at the sound of Spike's voice, Angel ignored him, hoping that he'd just spit out a few insults and then slink away.  Looking past Spike, Angel's eyes traveled down the path that Willow had taken.

Spike groaned.  "You aren't going to give up, are you?  Bloody hell, man. I know you haven't spent as much time with Red as I have, so maybe you don't get the finer points of Willow-speak, but it should be plainly obvious, even to a thickie like you, that the woman wants to forget that she ever met you--"

"With a little coaching from you, no doubt," Angel cut in caustically, finally acknowledging Spike's presence with a baleful glare.

Instinctively, Angel took in the other vampire's appearance, from his black jeans and the duster that that billowed so dramatically whenever he moved, to his platinum hair and the two scars that marred the otherwise smooth, pale skin of his face.  What was it about Spike that Willow found such obvious comfort in?  Why did he seem to have such a hold on her, making her put so much stock in what Spike said?

"Ooh, don't tell me someone's in denial...*still*..." Spike chuckled.

"She's just confused--"

"Too damn right she's confused, mate.  Wonder why that is?  What with you breathing down her neck all the time, it's a bloody miracle the girl has any higher brain function left at all!  I'd hoped after our little chat last night that you'd have finally gotten it through that thick skull of yours that you need to leave Red alone."

"Red," Angel scoffed through gritted teeth, thinking of Willow's new bright red hair.  "Bet you had something to do with that, too."  It wasn't that he didn't like her new look, it was just that it was...well...new.  In fact, he thought the shorter hair framed her delicate features perfectly and the bold color seemed to make her ivory skin and emerald eyes appear even more luminous.  But it was new, it wasn't Rose.  But then again, neither was she, Angel reminded himself.

Spike ignored him.  "Apparently, I spoke too quickly for you last night, peaches. So let me spell it out yet again."  Spike closed the distance between them into two determined strides.  They were close enough to touch, and both accurately aware of that fact.  "I won't let you hurt her again, Angelus."

"I'm not going to hurt her," Angel said in voice made low from barely controlled rage at the mere idea that Willow would need Spike to protect her from him!  "The last thing I want to do is hurt her!"

Spike's face brightened purposefully.  "Really?" Spike asked with overly exuberant glee. "So you'll be leaving then?  Can I help you pack, buy you a one-way bus ticket to Albuquerque?"

"The only one who'll be leaving is you, Spike.  Try Alaska...I hear it's nice and sunny this time of year, and you could stand to work on your tan," he responded evenly, yet felt like a petulant schoolboy. Angel hated how easy it was for Spike to draw him into such childish verbal battles.

Spike clucked his tongue, shaking his head sadly.  "Didn't think you were man enough to do the right thing.  No...not the great Angelus.  Still too much of the demon in you, eh?  Have to stick around, revel in the pain you've created just a little while longer, squeeze out a few more nightmares, maybe a flashback or two.  Must make sure that she's doesn't know a moment's peace or happiness, eh?"

"You've been watching too much daytime TV, Spike," came Angel's cold reply.

Spike backed away, as if standing that close to Angel was like being near a full-size crucifix.  "Look, mate," he said, the mocking tone gone from his voice and in its stead increasing anger and obvious concern.  "This is not some episode of Dark Shadows I'm talking about.  This is Willow's life, and you've mucked it up enough already."  His voice softened, his eyes losing some of the icy anger that Angel had become familiar with over the past few days.  "She's not as strong as she looks or pretends to be, Angel.  She never was."

Even the near pleading aspect of Spike's words, or that fact that he'd actually called him 'Angel' instead of 'Angelus' couldn't dampen the dark vampire's bitterness towards the blond demon, who was now walking away.  Unable to let Spike have the last word, Angel quickly blurted out: "I know I've hurt Willow in the past, but I'll make it up to her."

Spike stopped in his tracks, a look of sheer incredulity on his face as he turned back toward his pseudo-sire.  "You don't actually have the slightest bloody idea what you put her through, do you?"

Caught off guard by the bewildered look on Spike's face, Angel frowned, unsure of what Spike was getting at and not liking that feeling at all.  "I bit her...hurt her, I know that..."

"Bit her?" Spike laughed mirthlessly, throwing his head back and his arms out to his sides as if to ask God what he'd done to deserve this.  Then, shaking his head, he fixed Angel with another astounded look.  "*Hurt* her?" he repeated.

"From the scars on her neck, I'd say not as many times as you have."

Spike's grin was almost boastful, and when topped with a raised brow, he looked downright proud of himself.  Angel wanted to rip that scarred brow from his pale flesh.  "I'm talking about a lot more than some holes in her throat, you bloody pillock."

Angel remained silent, unwilling to aid Spike in his newest game, yet unable to make himself turn and walk away.  Angel was fully aware of the fact that he'd hurt Willow in more than physical ways, and since being souled, he had always been thankful for her strength.  It was due in no small part to that stalwart inner streak of hers that she'd managed to survive her dealings with him, sanity intact.  Willow's strength, coupled with an almost saintly forgiving nature, had made him what he is today.

"In London...when you found her that first time, bit her, and she escaped...you recall that night?"  Spike didn't want or expect Angel to answer, so he continued on.  "It was a particularly savage bite, that, mate.  Real nasty piece of work.  Something I'd expect more from a fledgling than the mighty Angelus..."  Shrugging, Spike paused long enough for that to sink in, but  Angel didn't even flinch.  Spike dug deeper.  "Yeah, you took quite a chunk out of the poor girl.  Bet you can still taste her, can't you?  Quite tasty is our Willow."

That at least got a reaction out of the dark vampire.  "Don't push me, Spike!" he snarled, taking one long stride that put him directly in Spike's path.  He didn't touch him, although his hands were aching to grab him by the collar, lifting until his boots left the pavement.  "If it weren't for Willow, I'd have taken you out the moment I knew you were back!"

Spike went on as though nothing had happened, as if Angel weren't standing in front of him, threatening his unlife.  "What do you think happened after she managed to escape you that night?"

Angel had heard overheard Willow's quick account of that fateful night, but the details had been scanty.  He'd always assumed that was because Willow didn't want to reveal his part in the events to Giles.  But now Spike was insinuating that there was so much more to it than that.

A sinking feeling tugged at Angel's soul, making a small part of him want to turn and run away before it was too late, but the larger part of him wanted to hear Spike's version.  Preparing himself for the worst, Angel stood still under Spike's scornful gaze, and listened.

"By the time I found her," Spike began, "collapsed in a puddle of her own blood on the floor of my little hovel, she was barely alive. Only reason she hadn't bled to death was that time travel spell.  Crikey, she was a mess, all wet and covered in blood and muck.  I think she'd crawled through every sewer in London to escape you...and to get to me."  He said the last part slowly, emphasizing it with a telling look.

"I've heard this story before, Spike," Angel informed him before he could stop himself.

"Ah..." Spike smirked, taking out a cigarette, tapping it on the pack, and then slipping it back into his pocket.  He took his time lighting the cigarette before continuing his story.  "But do you know how she begged me to bite her that night?" he asked knowingly through an exhale of smoke.  "Half insane she was, made Drusilla look like a bloody Rhodes Scholar.  On her hands and knees...on my *bed*...she pleaded with me to drink her. When I wouldn't, Red tried to seduce me into it instead.  There she was, kneeling half-dressed on my bed, blood dripping down her neck from this bloody great gash in her throat, begging for me to..."  Spike's voice trailed off at the vivid memory.  "Bloody hell she was beautiful," he said softly, a strange half-smile on his face as he stared fixedly at the end of his burning cigarette for a few long moments.

Angel balled his fists, too angry and filled with disgust by Spike's words to actually see the bigger picture they were creating.  God how he wanted to beat Spike to a pulp.  His cocky attitude, his constant insinuations about his relationship with Willow, just the way Spike held his head seemed reason enough to remove it from the rest of his body.

Spike seemed to snap out of it as he met Angel's cold, infuriated glare.  A sly smile twisted at his lips.  "No, you didn't know about that, did you?  What *you* *reduced* her to?"

Angel flinched, as if slapped.  "And being the gentleman that you are, you had to oblige the lady, didn't you?"  Angel told himself to shut up, but his mouth didn't seem to want to cooperate.  "I've seen your handiwork allover her neck..."  The look of joyous victory on Spike's face was proof enough to Angel that he should have kept quiet, the quirking of his blond brow seeming to laugh: "*Only* on her neck?"

"As a matter of fact, I didn't oblige the lady," Spike informed him, much to Angel's surprise and relief.  His relief was short lived.  "Instead, I calmed her down a bit by reminding her that I wasn't you.  That *I* wasn't an animal."  He paused long enough for Angel to recover from that verbal blow before striking again.  "I took care of her, held her during her nightmares even, until she was fit enough to flee from England to escape you."  Spike flicked the barely smoked cigarette to the ground, but didn't grind it out.  He left the stub burning in the gutter as he continued to punish the other vampire.

"And not that it's any of your business, but those marks on her neck, and elsewhere, they came much later in our relationship.  Willingly.  Sanely.  Enthusiastically, I might add."

"No wonder she hated you so much when I brought her back to London.  You used Willow until you were bored with her, or until you could get Drusilla, and then you abandoned her to me."  Angel sneered at the other vampire.  "Yes, you're quite the saint, Spike.  A true friend."

Spike shook his head, pursing lips as he finally ground out the glowing cigarette stub.  "Like I told you before, Red and I have sorted that all out.  I came clean, she forgave me, and life went bloody on, didn't it?"

"Now, I know what you're thinking, Angelus," Spike quickly added before Angel had a chance to regroup.  "You figure that if she could forgive me for that betrayal, then she can forgive you as well, right?  What you're forgetting is that everything I did during those few torturous hours when we were all together under one roof, I did to save her from you.  It wasn't nice, it wasn't pretty, and I've never denied that I found some satisfaction in the whole game, but it worked, didn't it?  Because of me, she's home and you've been castrated.  In the end, Red thanked me, Angelus.  She *thanked* me for *everything* I did.  I wouldn't hold my breath expecting to hear the same if I were you, Angelus."

Angel was staring at the ground now, his dark eyes focused past the remains of Spike's crushed cigarette. His will to continue meeting Spike's mocking eyes no matter what, had begun to erode under the torrent of dark emotions rushing through him.  He didn't want to believe Spike, he knew he shouldn't believe Spike after all his past deceptions and betrayals, and yet...

"But I digress," Spike started in again, sadistically, coldly.  "I'm supposed to be telling you what *you've* done to hurt Red, not what I've done to save her."  Spike grinned when Angel actually winced and his soulful brown eyes rose to search hateful blue ones.  "What I'm trying to get through that thick sloping forehead of yours is that the pain you've caused her goes so much more than skin deep.  I don't know how you did it, mate, but in spite of everything I did to stop it, you still got inside her...mind, body and soul, Angelus.  You wormed your way in so that even when she was safe from you, you still ate away at her, poisoning her until she didn't even know who she was anymore."

"Considering everything she's been through, Willow seems fine.  She's a lot stronger than you think," Angel insisted.  But who was he trying to convince with words he didn't believe, not even for a moment...Spike or himself?

It was that cold, intractable look on Angel's face that was the final straw for Spike.  He grabbed the plackets of his red button-down shirt and ripped them apart, sending several buttons flying to the ground.  Spike yanked the shirt out of his jeans, then grabbed the collar of his black T-shirt and easily ripped it diagonally from collarbone to the side of his chest.

"See this?" Spike jabbed a pale finger at the large, round scar just above his heart.  "This is from getting a damned chair leg shoved into my chest by our favorite redhead!"

Angel's lips curved into a cruel smile.  "You deserved it.

"No, *you* deserved it, mate," Spike snarled. "When she was busy playing 'hide the chair leg' with me not long after faking our departure, she thought I was you.  To save her, I *made* her think I was you."

Angel looked him up and down skeptically. "She must have really been insane to think that you were me," Angel jeered, but inwardly he was sickened by his own words and by the unmistakable truth in them.  Yes, if Spike's story was to be believed, Willow must have been half-crazed to make such an error.  He didn't want to believe, but again, he did.

"It's not hard to be you, mate." Spike moved until he was directly illuminated by a nearby streetlight.  He used it as a stage performer would a spotlight.  "Just throw on that nancy-boy accent of yours, get a lobotomy, and I'm suddenly Angelus..."  Spike assumed a pose that was somehow both threatening and comical at the same time.  He kept his jaw slack while scrunching up his forehead, as if were suffering from an excruciating headache.  "Ah, there's me Rose...me love...me flower," he drawled in a thick Irish brogue.  "Now if I could only find me brain and me bottle of whiskey..."

While Angel didn't think Spike looked anything like him, the imitation of his voice was quite alarming in its accuracy.  Then in the blink of an eye, he was only Spike again, a look that Angel found that no less dangerous or painful.

"I made her choose, made her choose between her...desire for Angelus--an attraction that sickened and disgusted her and still does to this day--and her own life.  This," Spike informed the other vampire, tapping on the curved scar near his collarbone, "is the result of her choice.  In the end, she chose life and staked you.  No Angelus...no Angel..."  Spike gave him a cold, calculated look that clearly showed how much he wished that were true.

"After that, she came to her senses," Spike continued when Angel, standing still as stone, made no comment.  "But for a moment, Red truly believed that she had willingly killed Angelus and therefore you, Angel."  Spike's smile was triumphant, making Angel reconsider ripping his lips off.  "Life was just peachy after that."

Not wanting to show any more weakness in front of the other vampire than he already had, Angel focused on his hatred for Spike in order to help him momentarily ignore his waxing guilt. "Guess we need to work on her aim," was all he said.

Spike shook his head in amusement, not buying Angel's forced stoicism for a moment.  He took the time to fix his clothes as best he could, closing the torn flap in his tee before tucking it in, then fastening the few buttons that remained on his other shirt.  When his chest was no longer open to Angel's prying eyes, Spike's lecture continued.  "Now, the point of my little story, you great wally, is this:

"You think just because you have a soul now that all is forgotten?  At least the scars that *I* gave to Red are all on the outside."  Spike didn't really believe that, but he was confident that he and Willow had worked through those issues.  The scars that he had caused her, both inside and out, had truly healed, he believed, and their relationship was stronger for it.  "But what you've done to her, Angelus, will last for an eternity."

"For someone who claims to know Willow so well, you aren't giving her much credit, Spike."

"You don't believe me?  Fine.  Then why don't you go tell her how you really feel, Angelus.  Go tell the girl you love her, and let's see how she reacts.  I'll give odds that at best she'll yell at you...saying something like, 'Love me?  How the bloody hell can you love me, you arrogant, swaggering pillock, when you don't even know me?'"  Spike laughed at his own insult while Angel's face remained tight.  "But inside, Angelus...inside where it counts, it will kill her.  The guilt and disgust will eat away at her again."

"Maybe you can't help yourself," Spike continued.  "Willow told me that you've more Angelus in you than the old Angel had.  And by the way I saw you treat her tonight back at the kiddies' club, I think she's right.  It's funny, but as much as I despised the broody bore you were before, at least *he* wouldn't keep torturing Willow this way...touching her, teasing her, breaking out the old accent every now and again to see what kind of repulsive feelings he could wring out of her..."

Angel wanted to say something, anything that would counter the horrid truths spilling from Spike's cruel mouth, but there was nothing...only a cancerous feeling that the last century of penance and waiting had been the easy part.  Only now was he truly going to suffer for what he'd done.

Spike was surprised by the other vampire's relative silence, the way Angel stood there, simply taking his every verbal blow.  He was hurting Angel, of that Spike was bloody well sure, and he was getting through to him as well.  Maybe Angel didn't say it, but Spike could see comprehension dawning in the hidden depths of Angel's bronze eyes.  Unfortunately, Spike wanted to see more than just comprehension.  Spike wanted Angel to suffer tenfold for everything that he had put the both of them through, and so he didn't let up.  Not yet.

"If you keep doing this to her, she'll shut down.  I won't allow her to turn in on herself until she nearly implodes again.  If you truly do have yourself a soul, Angel, then you'd better back the bloody hell off before it's too late because there's no guarantee that I'll be able to save her next time."

Again, the darker vampire was silent, keeping his pain to himself.

"Bloody hell, Angel!" Spike was yelling now, his anger truly getting the better of him for the first time in a very long time.  But when he thought of how close he'd come to losing Willow in Vienna, then again that fateful night in Romania... "We haven't even been back four bloody days yet!  Four days ago you were trying to--"

"Enough!" Angel finally cried, no longer able to hide all the suffering Spike was inflicting on him...and no longer wanting to.  "I know, Spike!  I know!  Damn, don't you think I know that I was going to...what I was going to do to her?" His voice choked and his knees almost buckled, but he forced his brown eyes to lock on Spike's steely blue ones.  "You saved her from me, Spike."

"Finally figured that out, did you?"

There was a long pause before Spike's sneer was wiped away with only two words from Angel.

"Thank you."

Angel's words were spoken so openly, honestly and with such a look of indebtedness on his face that Spike's cockiness ebbed somewhat.

They stared at each other for a moment or two, neither sure what they were looking for in the other's eyes, or for that matter, who the other vampire really was.  Then without another word, they turned and walked away...neither quite the same as they were before...

...and neither noticing the two creatures watching them from a safe distance.  When both vampires had gone their separate ways and were lost to their sight, they exchanged lidless glances.

The first one checked the nondescript silver-toned watch on his bony wrist.  The  second, who was much shorter than the other but no less bizarre in appearance, shook his head at the first, then checked his Rolex in a manner that was unmistakably smug.

*****

Willow had little recollection of her walk home once she had left Angel.  As she quickly strolled the final few blocks, she kept asking herself if she'd done the right thing.  Had she said too much to Angel?  Was she too hard on him?  Sure, she'd apologized, but hadn't she also basically asked him to leave her alone yet again?  On the other hand, Willow also felt as if she hadn't said enough.  Comments like, "Quit looking at me like I'm a saint, Angel.  Like I'm your personal savior!" or "I'm not a reward, Angel!  I'm not your prize for being a good boy all of these years!" had been on the tip of her tongue.  Luckily, for a change, she'd been able to hold her tongue before she said something that she'd really regret later.

This time, she reminded herself when her house came into view, there would be no apology, for she'd spoken the truth.  She only hoped that someday he would understand.

Telling herself for what felt like the millionth time in her life that she'd done the right thing, Willow was just about to climb her porch steps when something she'd been dreading finally happened.

"So she does exist..."

At the sound of the gentle yet eerie voice, Willow spun around to see Drusilla emerging from the shadows at the side of her porch.  "Drusilla," she murmured thickly.  "It's, er, nice to see you...awake..."

Drusilla simply gave her a lazy smile as she wandered closer.  Her dark eyes widened when she passed the flower-covered trellis on one side of the porch, and she stopped to quietly smell one of the giant white roses. "I was starting to think my Spike had made her up...just to make me jealous, my naughty Spike."  She snapped the delicate bloom from its stem, not appearing to mind the thorns that tore at her pale skin. Finally, she looked from the flower in her bloody hand to where Willow stood at the bottom of the steps, nervously clutching the handrail.  "But there she is, quite real by my eyes."

Even though the vampiress had yet to say her name, Willow knew that she was the person to whom Drusilla was referring...just as she knew that Drusilla hadn't popped by merely to do a little late-night gardening.

"Oh, I'm real, all right," Willow replied impatiently, her eyes glued to the vampire's every move.  "Flesh and blood."  The flash of amber in Drusilla's dark eyes made Willow regret her unfortunate choice of words.

"Flesh and blood..." Drusilla hissed then deliberately sniffed at the air.  She suddenly dropped the flower and slowly crushed it beneath her slippered foot.  "Yes...warm flesh, warm blood..."

"Um, yes, the warmth tends to come with the breathing...it's this whole big circulatory thing..." Willow responded, more gently this time, then started edging her way to the bottom step.  No matter what Spike had said about protecting her, Willow was not going to take any chances.  Slowly sidling up the stairs, Willow watched warily as Drusilla plucked one beautiful rose in full bloom after another.

"Not even English..." Drusilla murmured, before dropping each rose to the ground.

Willow was on the porch, feeling her pocket for a key, when Drusilla ran out of healthy blooms to pluck.  The redhead froze. Drusilla turned to stare at Willow, looking her up and down unabashedly.  Willow had to make a concerted effort not to squirm under the pressure of her cold assessment.

She most definitely felt as if she were being measured for something, and found wanting.  Which was probably a good thing, Willow realized.  When Drusilla made no move to stop her, Willow unlocked the front door and pushed it open, readying her escape, but she stayed outside, one step from safety.  As the scent of the roses was brought to Willow on the gentle summer's night breeze, she wondered at the real reason for the visit by Spike's paramour.  Wondered and worried.

With a pinched, disapproving frown, Drusilla finally stopped her piercing inspection.  Pushing her shoulders back, she narrowed her eyes.   "Well, Rose--"

"It's Willow, actually," the redhead interrupted curtly, answering the other's condescending tone in kind.

"--I can not say that I see what all the fuss is about," Drusilla continued, as if she hadn't heard her.  She turned back to the remaining wilted flowers.  "A most common sort, not very pretty, I think.  Some might even think it a hot-house flower, but not I.  No, I see it for the weed that it is."

Willow could feel the rest of her patience quickly slipping away, but she wasn't foolish enough to let herself get dragged into a cat fight, verbal or otherwise, with the vampire.  Instead, Willow took one of her cathartic breaths in an effort to remain calm under the flimsily veiled insults.  Applying a nonchalant air that one could only acquire during the forced politeness of Victorian salons, Willow actually smiled and said, "I assure you, the fuss was not about me, Drusilla.  It was about you."

This made Drusilla smile.  She snapped off one of the deader roses, its leaves wilted and blackening, and brought it to her nose.  The whole time her cold, dark eyes were pinned on Willow.  Willow saw more than glimmers of insanity in those dead eyes.  There were glimmers of other emotions simmering there as well, darker more dangerous ones.

As if sensing that Willow was seeing something that Drusilla preferred to keep private, she closed her eyes briefly.  When they reopened, they were far less revealing.  "Yesss...  My Spike changed history for me."

Willow stayed silent.  What could she say?  Other than, "Yeah, well, there's no accounting for taste, is there?"  But she didn't say it, instead she nodded mutely.

"For *me*," Drusilla repeated, taking a step closer to the porch steps. "Not for her."  Drusilla raised the dead rose to her face once again, inhaling the pungent odor of overripe flowers.  "Not for you," she said to the flower.  With a mischievous grin, Drusilla began plucking the darkened, withering petals one-by-one and letting them float to the ground.  All the while her lips were moving.  Willow heard no words, but she didn't need to in order to recognize the classic, 'He loves me, he loves me not' routine.

Or was it 'He loves *her*, he loves *her* not'?

Willow shook her head in dismay, her feet itching to dash through the open doorway to the safety of her home.  Perhaps Spike's idea of 'an almost sane Drusilla' was a little different from hers.

When Drusilla was on her fifth or sixth dead flower, Willow'd had enough.  It had already been a long day, and she was tired of the other woman's theatrics.

"Look, Drusilla...We are both intelligent women..." she said wearily, barely managing to keep a straight face.  "Worldly women--".

"Drusilla!"  Spike called out as he stalked quickly up the path. He pulled Dru roughly into his arms without even a glance in Willow's direction.  "Why are you here, love?"

"I was looking for you, my sire-not-sire, my Spike," Drusilla replied breathlessly.  "I know how you can't resist a stroll through the garden on such a lovely night."  Her fingers traced patterns over Spike's heart.  "I was hoping I could help you with the weeding," she added in a haunting voice that sent a chill through Willow.  "You must get the roots, too, my Spike, or else it will never completely die...never..."

Spike kissed her softly on the lips, adoringly.  "I've been looking everywhere for you, Drusilla.  You know you shouldn't be here, pet," he told her in an almost parental tone, but his hungry look was anything but paternal.  "Very naughty indeed."  Willow found herself rolling her eyes at the insinuating tone to the vampire's voice.

Drusilla pouted prettily.  "Please don't be cross with me, my Spike, but I had to see with my own two eyes, didn't I?  Had to see, but now I'm afraid that I don't understand."

"Understand what, pet?"

"What all the bother is about, my Spike," she replied with a pointed look in Willow's direction.

Huffing in irritation, Willow crossed her arms over her chest.  "I couldn't agree more."

Finally looking at Willow, he grinned, raising an amused brow.  Still watching her, Spike whispered something in Drusilla's ear that the redhead couldn't hear.  Whatever it was, it must have delighted Drusilla because she began giggling quite girlishly before Spike had finished.

"Now who's being naughty, my Spike?" she sighed happily as Spike continued to murmur in her ear, nipping at a lobe and the slender column of her neck a time or two, until Willow could have sworn that the vampiress was about to swoon.  Willow was actually tapping her foot in annoyance when Spike finally pushed Drusilla gently away, saying, "Go now, love...I'll be right behind you after I take care of some unfinished business."

Drusilla scowled, looking between Willow and Spike.  "Promise me you won't plant any more flowers without me, my Spike?  You may weed, but no more planting.  Promise me?"

"Er, okay, Dru," Spike said in placating manner.  "Never any gardening without you, Drusilla.  Only with you."

This seemed to please her immensely, because with one last lingering and nearly violent kiss, Drusilla strolled away.

By the time Drusilla was truly out of sight, Willow was standing on the top step with her hands on her hips, glaring down at him.  "So now I'm just *business*, am I?" she asked slyly.

Spike pursed his lips, looking Willow up and down approvingly.  "Any time you want to make this about pleasure, Red, just let me know."

Willow smiled, relaxing under Spike's calming familiarity.  "That little display of yours with Drusilla...that was..." Willow grimaced, shaking her had as she struggled to find the right words.  "That was...icky, Spike," was the best she could come up with.

Spike's grin only broadened as he casually climbed the steps to meet her on the porch.  "Jealous, Red?"

"Nauseous, Spike," Willow retorted with a thoroughly disgusted look on her face. She took a seat on the top step.  "And you can wipe that arrogant smirk off your face right now, buster.  I have no intention of fighting for you, or over you--"

"How about *under* me then?" he jeered, but having heard it all before, Willow ignored the innuendo and finished what she had to say.

"--but that doesn't mean that I'm going to just stand here and let her insult me."

Spike grew more serious as he leaned back against one of the porch columns.  "Are you forgetting who she is, Willow?"

Willow's mouth actually dropped open for a moment as she stared up at him.  "Forget?" she exclaimed in disbelief.  "How the hell could I forget who she is when the vast majority of my incredibly screwed up life has revolved around her in one way or another!"  She wanted to hit him suddenly, as it once again became glaringly obvious how splendidly the new timeline had worked out for him, what with his back-from-the-dead-again girlfriend and his new-found wealth.

"What I mean is, she's a vampire, Red.  May not serve to piss her off."

"Duh," Willow snapped at him, then sighed when she realized she was unfairly taking out all of her frustrations regarding Angel on the blond vampire.  "I know, Spike," she said much more calmly.  "And if I ever see her again, I'll try to behave."

"Good, because she's stronger than she was before."  Spike's proud grin shifted into more of a concerned look.  "Which means she's more dangerous than before, Willow."  At the brief flash of apprehension in Willow's eyes, he hurried to add, "I've talked to her, Red.  She knows you're off limits.  She won't hurt you."

Willow shrugged.  Oddly enough, it felt as if a crazy, jealous girlfriend was the least of her problems at the moment.  "You know, you think she'd be a little more grateful to me considering everything I went through for you two.  It's not like I want a thank you card or anything, but if she could cut down a bit on the looks of death, that would be thanks enough in my book."

Spike laughed, then pushed away from the column and jumped down a few steps to stand on the sidewalk below Willow and look up at her.  "You let me worry about Drusilla, Red.  I told you once I wouldn't let her hurt you, and I still intend to keep that promise.  Besides, you two really should try to get along."

"Um, why?"

"You two do have a lot in common."

"Besides experience wearing corsets, what else?"

"Me."

Willow groaned.  She should have known.  "Dealing with your enormous ego?"

"And dealing with other...*bits* of me as well."

Willow tried not to smile...she tried very, very hard not to grin at his innuendo, but Spike was standing there, hands in his pockets, head tilted just slightly to the side, lips pursed, jaw clenched, one brow raised, and a sinful gleam to his eye.  He was devilishly charming when he looked like that, and Willow had no doubt that he was quite aware of the effect he could still have on her.  She was only human, after all...or at least she hoped so.

Still, she sighed and rolled her eyes, too tired for their usual games.  "Save your naughty-boy charm for Drusilla, Spike.  I have enough problems without having your jealous lover stopping by to do some more, er, gardening."  She looked over at what was left of the flowers and frowned.  "I thought you said she was sane."

Spike grinned happily.  "She is."

Willow skipped down the porch stairs to stand in front of the mutilated rose bushes, then groaned when she saw all of the damage.  How was she going to explain that to her parents.  "Sane?  Look at what she did to my roses!"

Spike cocked a scarred brow at the bare stems and the carpet of petals beneath his feet, then shrugged.  "My Dark Goddess definitely has an air for the dramatic, but other than a strange new hatred of flowers, she's much more lucid than she was before."

"Then your 'sane-o-meter' must run on a different scale than mine, because mine was definitely dipping into the danger zone tonight."  Willow shivered as she recalled the darker emotions she detected in Drusilla's eyes the one time the vampiress had truly looked at her.

Spike seemed unaware of her distress, though.  "Did she dance about the place, asking if you could hear the bloody stars singing?" he asked, and once again pulled the pack of cigarettes from a duster pocket, selecting the least crumpled one.

"No."

"Did Dru invite you to a tea party with her damned dolls?" he asked her casually.

"Er, no..." she admitted, and Spike lit the cigarette and took a long drag before continuing his questioning.

"Then did she talk in nonsensical nursery rhymes, like a whacked-out Mother Goose?"

"Um...not exactly..."

"Then by Drusilla standards, she's as sane as you or I."

"As sane as you or I?" Willow laughed, shaking her head at the vampire.  "If that was supposed to make me feel better, you failed miserably."

Spike took a seat on the top step, putting him at eye level with the standing redhead.  "I told you I won't let her hurt you, Red.  And I won't.  She knows you're off-limits and she would never go against me.  But she's a woman, so she likes to feel out the competition, so to speak."

"Competition?"  Willow could have smacked him.  "Have you bothered to tell her that I don't want you?  That as far as I'm concerned, you two deserve each other and can live happily ever after in vampiric wedded bliss?"

Spike took another thoughtful puff, letting the smoke slowly escape from his lips and nostrils. "Not in so many words, pet."

When Willow didn't say anything, instead leaping past him up the steps and heading for the front door, Spike hurriedly added, "I will, Red, I will.  Nothing to get your knickers in a knot about."

Willow nodded her head, as if to say 'good', then said, "Spike, I'm really tired.  It's been a long day, and I didn't get much sleep last night, as usual.  So why don't you go *reassure* Drusilla and let me get to bed?"

"He thinks he's in love with you, Willow."

Willow stopped, one hand on the door knob.  She glanced behind her, hoping that the look on Spike's face would reveal the declaration to be one of his crueler jokes.  He had to be joking, didn't he?  But Spike looked painfully serious as he dropped his cigarette on the ground, turning to look up at her.

"He-he told you that?" she asked, her voice shaking in time with her trembling hand.  She crossed her arms about her chest to steady herself.

"Didn't have to.  It's written all over the poof's face, isn't it?  Didn't deny it, either."

Willow frowned, forgetting about going inside for a moment, she moved back toward the steps to look down at Spike.

"He doesn't even know me, Spike.  He's just...grateful and kinda confused.  He's set me up on some pedestal and looks at me through rose-colored glasses...excuse the pun," she added when Spike groaned.

"Did you really think a change of hair and a pair of leather pants would knock you out of that ivory tower?"

"No, of course not.  I just thought it might help if I no longer looked like Rose.  Besides," she said flatly, "I was in desperate need of some new clothes and a haircut.  It's not natural for a woman to go a year without changing her look, let alone a century."

"And have I told you yet just how much I approve of your new look, Red?" With his hands deeply embedded in the pockets of his duster, Spike languidly climbed the porch steps to stand in front of Willow. He eyed her up and down appreciatively, then in a husky tone that sent delicious but unwanted shivers down her spine, murmured, "I always knew you'd look good in leather."

"Hate to disappoint you," she said with a nervous laugh, "but I have no intention of turning into a biker chick.  This is the only leather in my new ensemble.  Well, except for shoes and stuff."

"And I like being able to see your throat..." he drawled, then tucked an errant lock of the shortened hair behind her ear.

Willow swallowed, hard, her fingers rising to run absentmindedly over her own neck.  "I don't think Angel does.  He was staring at it tonight, and it wasn't in a hungry way.  For a moment, he seemed angry."

"Angry how?" Spike queried, turning serious again.

Willow shrugged.  "I don't know.  I don't understand him, Spike.  Sometimes he's so much like Angelus that when he looks at me, I can hardly breathe."  She paused, her eyes shifting to focus past something over his shoulder.  "And sometimes, I don't want to breathe..." she added in a faraway voice that was so whisper soft, Spike almost didn't hear her, even though he was standing directly in front of her.  By the distant look on her face, Spike wasn't even sure she was aware that she'd spoken the words aloud.

His jaw clenched so tightly that he could feel the veins popping out at his temples, Spike spun on his heels and jumped down the steps, muttering, "'Night, Red."  Feeling like Willow had just confirmed his worst fears, the ones that he'd revealed earlier to Angel, Spike disappeared into the shadows of the neighboring houses before Willow could even offer a response.

Bone weary and very familiar with the blond vampire's vacillating moods, Willow thought little of it as she finally headed inside.

As her door closed, the two creatures that had been watching Angel and Spike earlier, stepped out from the large, leafy shrub that they'd been hiding in across the street.  They looked first at each other and then at their watches, before shaking their elongated, slick-skinned heads.  Just then, a third one appeared, causing the other two to shake their heads more slowly, as if in censure.  In unison, the original duo pointed to their watches, tapping them sharply to show the time to the tardy third.

The last creature simply shrugged, then pulled out a Palm Pilot.  Large flashing digits revealed the current time on its tiny screen.  The smaller one with the Rolex smacked the third on the arm, but the blow was ignored with a rolling of lidless eyes.

Simultaneously, the three checked their various time-keeping devices, smiled, and then vanished without a trace.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

End Chapter 12  (archived 12/14/01)
 
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